For as long as she can remember, 23-year-old Lauren Taylor has been advocating for others with disabilities. At the age of 3, Taylor participated in a study focusing on young children using power wheelchairs. “It seems all of my life this has been my purpose. Even when I wasn’t fully aware of exactly what I was doing, I was an advocate,” Taylor said. “I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when I was one year old. When I was three, I participated in a national study to support insurance approval for power chairs for young children. A video of me perfectly operating a power chair was used to help document that young children were cognitively able to operate power chairs.”
In elementary school, Taylor and her parents were successful in convincing her school to make the playground accessible. “I was unhappy because I couldn’t enjoy much of the playground. I knew that I wanted changes, but I didn’t know how to have a voice in the situation. My parents were supportive, led the way, and taught me how to advocate for my needs and the needs of others.”
Taylor’s future very much includes continuing to advocate for those with disabilities and helping them adjust to a world that isn’t always easy to navigate. She earned her undergraduate degree in Rehabilitation Studies from the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton, Texas, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling. “I’ll complete my master’s in May of 2021 and will be a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Rehabilitation Counselor,” Taylor said. “My career goal is to be a counselor, a talk therapist, working primarily with people with physical disabilities. Very rarely does someone with a physical disability have access to a counselor who also has a physical disability. I also want to develop a career as a public speaker to broaden the influence of my advocacy.”
In addition to the work on her master’s degree, Taylor works part-time as the Youth Transition Specialist with the REACH in Denton. (https://www.reachcils.org/). “I work with high school kids who have disabilities to transition into life after high school,” Taylor said. “This is an important time in the students’ lives, and I love having this opportunity to help them move forward and achieve their goals. Navigating adulthood is a challenge, but it is so much more complex as a person with a disability. For example, I work and earn my own money, but if I have over a certain amount as an asset, I lose my Medicaid benefits. Even marriage can be a barrier to people with disabilities because once you combine your income with someone, it is usually over the asset limit as well, resulting in loss of benefits. As I learn how to handle difficult situations, I look forward to sharing my experiences with others. I think of this as a ripple effect continuing to radiate from the many people and events who had a positive impact on my life.”
“Visits to a barrier-free camp each summer were a huge part of my self- acceptance and shaped my development as a human being,” Taylor said. “At Camp John Marc near Meridian, Texas, I could zip line, fish, learn archery – I could try anything I wanted. At a very young age, I began to realize the many possibilities for my future.”
Another experience that helped Taylor gain self-confidence was learning to play wheelchair power hockey when she was in elementary school. “I didn’t know how to play hockey, but I met a group of guys who were all in power chairs and got together every couple of weeks to play. Even though they were older than me, they were patient and taught me the game. I loved it, and before long, I was just as good as they were!”
In school, Taylor discovered a passion for singing and participated in choir through middle school and high school. “I loved singing, and the choir members and directors were like a family to me. Singing was something I could do well, and my disability didn’t limit me. Choir was my place to go where I felt comfortable. It became my haven.” Although Taylor no longer participates in organized choir activities, she continues to enjoy singing and often performs the national anthem before special events.
“The day I found the Department of Rehabilitation and Health Services at the University of North Texas was the pivotal point in my life that set me in the right direction to solidify my life goals,” Taylor said. “The department is all disabilities, all the time. My professors are outstanding. This is where I belonged. I learned so much, including universal design.”
Universal design is the design of an environment in a way that is usable by people with and without disabilities at the same time. “A ramp works for everyone whether you use your legs or your wheels, but not everyone can climb stairs,” Taylor said. “So why not incorporate ramps in a building design rather than stairs? With this approach, you would not have to make accommodations for people with disabilities; the building would be accessible to everyone. I take every opportunity to talk about universal design, hoping to bring more people into the conversation.”
Taylor doesn’t just talk about universal design; she is actively involved in bringing universal design to the UNT campus. “I was an accessibility consultant with the university to help make all classrooms accessible,” Taylor said. “While I was an undergrad, I designed an accessible desk that fits into a track on the floor of a classroom so it cannot be moved. A person who doesn’t have a disability might not realize the difficulty a student experiences of requesting an accessible desk in a classroom. It feels good to be a part of something that has the potential to impact future UNT students with disabilities in a positive way.”
Her service dog is a vital part of Taylor’s life. “Buchanan is a 6-year-old Lab/Golden Retriever mix, and he is with me all the time. We do a lot of advocating together,” Taylor said. “I was matched with Buchanan through Canine Companions for Independence (https://www.cci.org/). During team training, Buchanan was the dog I wanted the least. He was sort of goofy looking, not one of the prettiest dogs. However, he was so intuitive with me that he ended up being my perfect match. Buchanan is my very best friend and does things I physically cannot do, such as open and close doors and flip light switches. He even helps with the laundry.”
Buchanan and Taylor often represent Canine Companions for Independence by making presentations on subjects such as service dog fraud and service dog etiquette. Taylor also works with Camp Craig Allen, a non-profit that promotes advocacy and independence for those with physical disabilities and plans to build a universally designed, barrier-free facility. She also volunteers regularly with To Be Like Me, a disabilities awareness group that provides children with interactive experiences focusing on awareness of different abilities.
Certainly, Buchanan was at Taylor’s side when she was selected Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2019. “Many friends who are past titleholders encouraged me to run for Ms. Wheelchair Texas, and the year after I received my undergraduate degree, I submitted my application,” Taylor said. “This competition is important to me because both the state and national events support an advocacy platform. It is not a beauty pageant, despite the impression made by the sash and a crown. Of course, my advocacy platform is universal design for inclusion.”
After being chosen as the Texas representative, Taylor attended the national event in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her tenure as Ms. Wheelchair Texas ended in February 2020; however, the experience will have a long-lasting impact on Taylor. “It was a great year! The title greatly increased my opportunities to share ideas about universal design and to advocate for people with disabilities,” Taylor said. “Even though I have an outgoing personality, the responsibility for setting up speaking opportunities and for raising funds to cover my expenses pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone. However, I experienced personal growth that will have a positive influence in all areas of my life.” Taylor recalled some wise words from a previous Ms. Wheelchair titleholder who told her: “If you win, take every single opportunity that comes your way. You never know what door may open for you.” Taylor took that advice to heart not only throughout her year as Ms. Wheelchair Texas, but she continues to apply a receptive attitude to life in general. “The experience of serving as Ms. Wheelchair Texas gave me a stronger presence and reinforced my commitment to advocacy,” Taylor said. “I am very thankful that door opened for me.”
Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lauren Taylor is a consumer advocate who resides in Texas.